The Scare du Jour:  Ukraine and the Jews – 18 April, 2014 – Shabbat Inspiration by Rabi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah. Yesterday, I received the following message from one of our former congregants now living in California:

“Dear Rabbi Yo:

How do we get a message to Sheldon Adelson, short of taking out an open letter in the paper, if that submission would even be honored?  He should meet with other like-minded billionaires and initiate a Jewish airlift in the Ukraine. There is a Jewish population of approximately 70,000 people if I read it correctly. How do we get some of those people to Israel and some of them here?  Could we ask for sponsoring families to provide temporary housing here?  At least Sheldon has hotel space and a jet.

I am not kidding. You have more influence than me. What can we do? Those families need to get the hell out of Dodge before we see a reenactment of WWII.

Worried,

Gittel”

 

If you have been following the news, then you know that Jews of Donetsk, Ukraine, were greeted on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, just as they left the synagogue, with some deeply unsettling news. Several balaclava-clad individuals were handing out what looked like very official looking leaflets, supposedly printed on the official letterhead of the self-proclaimed, separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” announcing that all Jews over 16 were instructed to register with the government, declare all motor vehicles and real estate, or face deportation and confiscation of their property.  They even were subject to paying approximately $50 for the “privilege” of registering!  The pamphlets supposedly also said that Jews were hostile to the Donetsk Republic, and allegedly bore the signature of its leader, Denis Pushilin; however Pushilin has denied any connection to the flyers.

The US embassy in Kiev confirmed that, understandably, some in the Jewish community had told it they were worried by the pamphlets.

The ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, told CNN: “Everything that we’re hearing is that this is the real deal, and that it is apparently coming from somebody on the ground there among these radical groups, either to stir fear or to create provocation justifying further violence.”

Some background:  As you know, pro-Russian militias, allegedly with Russian backing, are currently occupying government building in several eastern Ukrainian cities.  The limited success of Ukrainian attempts to dislodge these secessionists has been countered by rebel disarming the Ukrainian troops sent to stop them.  They’ve also lost a number of armored vehicles to the rebels.

Even though Ukrainian Jews have indicated that they’re unsure of who actually issued the flyers, the word quickly spread around the world and caused outrage here in the United States, where just about everyone recognized this as an echo of the Nazi policies that led to the Shoah, the Holocaust.  The fear and panic in the e-mail I shared with you was another reaction.  So how should one react?  Start with a level head.

As the song from Porgy and Bess goes, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”  Was this actually an official governmental decree?  Ari Shapiro, an NPR reporter, writing from Ukraine, acknowledged that the pamphlets ordering the Jews in the main city of eastern Ukraine to register “sparked a fierce firestorm of indignation, but the local chief rabbi dismissed them as nothing more than a provocation.”

In comments published on the website of the Donetsk Jewish community, Rabbi Pinchas Vyshedski commented the “What happened, of course, smells of a provocation.  As to who is behind it—that is an open question.

Speaking to the Jerusalem Post by phone from Kiev, Eduard Dolinsky of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee agreed that the flyers appeared to be a provocation, and that it was impossible to say who was responsible.

The Jewish community actually sent people to the address given for registration to check into the matter but “there was nobody there.”

Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich has blamed the Russians for a series of anti-Semitic attacks in Kiev over the past several months, linking them to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments on protecting Russian speakers, Jews and ethnic minorities as the rationale for his annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

The flyers in Donetsk may be a Ukrainian effort to do the same to Russia, Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said.

“Looks to me like some sort of provocation and an attempt to paint the pro-Russian forces as anti-Semitic,” Zuroff told the Post.  Asked about Zuroff’s theory, Donlinsky and Vyshetsky said that it was impossible to tell but that it was not out of the realm of possibility.

“It cannot quite be ruled out that some of these leaflets were distributed by grassroots separatist groups,” Vyacheslav Likhachev, an expert on Ukrainian anti-Semitism at the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, told the Post.  “Anti-Semitic propaganda accompanying the entry of the separatists in the south-east of Ukraine had been fixed quite often.”

Unfortunately, this is just the latest escalation in a series of political maneuvers in Ukraine where the anti-Semitism card has been repeatedly overplayed.

Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, reminds us that throughout the bloody history of the Ukraine, anti-Semitism has routinely raised its ugly head.  Between1648 and 1656, Bogdan Chmelnitski and his Cossacks systematically murdered thousands upon thousands of Jews, second only to Hitler three centuries later.

And, ironically, manufactured incidents of anti-Semitism have been cynically used to discredit political opponents as anti-Semites, whether they are, or not. In recent years, some Ukrainian political operatives have spread rumors that opposing candidates are Jews, likewise whether they are, or not.

Last year, political operatives, presumably of deposed former President Viktor Yanukovych, sent a dozen young men to an opposition rally with T-shirts that read “Beat the Jews!” on one side, and “Svoboda,” the name of the ultra-nationalist opposition party, on the other.

Both classical political anti-Semitism and the manufactured, manipulative version rely on a common assumption, that a significant number of Ukrainian citizens do not consider their Jewish compatriots to truly be part of the Ukrainian nation.

That attitude, unfortunately, continues to play a significant role in the Ukrainian nationalist movement. The Svoboda party venerates Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s. Bandera allied with the Nazis during World War II when he thought it was in the interest of his movement and was complicit in mass killings of Jews and Poles by Ukrainian partisans.

When Jews are considered a natural part of the Ukrainian nation, anti-Semitism in Ukraine should wane and the temptation to use anti-Semitism in politics should follow.  And that would be a relief, because anti-Semitism is a big enough problem without having anyone with a political ax to grind add to it artificially.  (File this under “allevai.”)

A positive first step was taken in yesterday’s statement from the U.S., the European Union, Russia and Ukraine, with the firm, clear and direct condemnation of “all expressions of extremism…including anti-Semitism.”  To change Ukraine’s atmosphere of insecurity, political, civic and religious leaders in Ukraine and Russia must continue to reinforce this message.  (A laudable action, but probably not number one on their “to-do” list.)

According to the Jerusalem Post, the JTA, and the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 17,000 Jews living in Donetsk.  So, although the knee-jerk reaction might be to simply organize a massive airlift and get the entire population to safety, it is not so simple….and, no, it is not Sheldon Adelson’s responsibility to initiate such an act.

First of all, the immediate care for that Jewish community is being seen to by the Jewish Agency and the JDC, working together throughout Ukraine, according to Elliot Karp, President and CEO of Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.  It continues to support the community, including Aliyah, should they ask for it; but there are no plans at the present time for any evacuation because this is such a politically charged issue between Ukraine, Russia, and Israel.  For that reason, the organized Jewish community needs to be very careful not to jeopardize the existing operations on the ground.

As for how this is being handled by the American government, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, after participating in talks with Ukrainian and Russian counterparts in Geneva, that the distribution of the pamphlets was “grotesque”.

“In the year 2014, after all of the miles travelled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it’s grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable,” he told reporters.

As we each deal with the implications of this incident, we need to remember that the struggle over east Ukraine, where Kiev is wrestling to assert its authority after the seizure of public buildings in 10 towns by pro-Russian separatists, is awash with propaganda and actions designed deliberately to inflame hostility towards one side or the other.

And as the turmoil in the Ukraine plays out, we, in the Jewish community, must remain vigilant, but should not jump to conclusions.

We have yet to answer the question as to why the Jews have historically become scapegoats, or in this instance, political pawns.  We cannot, because it is an unanswerable question.  In this z’man cheiruteinu, season of our redemption, we can only pray, as Nancey Eason writes on her blog: “Let my people be!”

Shabbat ShalomMoadim l’simcha.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

18 April, 2014

 

 

Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah – the only Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue serving the Las Vegas Valley.